Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Dave Mitchell: A Caverns' Employee, 1927 - 1957

This picture of Dave Mitchell is from Mr. Jim McGuire, Grandson of Park Superintendent
(1927-1946) Thomas Boles. Look at it closely; it is great!

Samuel David Mitchell: DOB: 08/23/1889; Death: September 18, 1968
Positions Held at Caverns: Guide (7/01/27), Assistant Chief Park Ranger, Laborer, Skilled Laborer, Pumpman, Pump Operator. Retired: September 18, 1968
ed_mitchell 2

1. From: August 31, 1994: Bob Hoff Interview With Mr. Jim White, Jr., History Leads & Resources, 94-14

I (BH) asked him (Jim White Jr.) about the names of any men that his dad worked with and used the example "Dave Mitchell." He said that he (JW) knew Dave Mitchell real well, that he was a nice guy, and that outside of his father, Jim White, Sr. Dave Mitchell knew more about the cave than anybody else in the country. (Note: Dave Mitchell started in the NPS at the age of 37 in July of 1927 as a per diem Guide, making $4 a day. In his 30 year career, he also served as Assistant Chief Ranger, Laborer, and Pumpman).

2. From Peggy Justice's Master Chronology

December 1957--Samuel D.Mitchell, pump operator, retired on December 31. He had assisted Jim White on a number of exploration trips. His park career covered over 20 years but his association at the caverns dated back about 35 years as he had been employed by the guano mining operation prior to his NPS career

3. From Carlsbad Caverns and Jim White: A History by Tom Meador--
June 15, 1984 (Meador was a huge fan of Caverns history and collector of Caverns-related items until his untimely death in 1986).

...Soon after coming to Carlsbad in 1903 Dave Mitchell remembered hearing people saying: "That crazy Jim White has gone off exploring in that cave again." It wasn't until 1911 that Dave had his first look inside the cavern. In that year Dave's father started hauling, with his freight team and wagon, the sacked guano from the cavern to Carlsbad. It was a four-day round trip then, with camp made at the present site of White's City.

Dave made the bucket descent down through the shaft into bat cave to visit the miners. Afterwards he admitted that the bucket ride was "scary" but thought that it was not as frightening as his first ladder descent, at the natural entrance. Where Jim had fixed a ladder that went down part way and then swung back under a ledge at a scary angle.

On that first cavern trip Dave ventured back into the caverns as far as the Devil's Spring, where the miners obtained some of their drinking water. He later declared that at the time there "just wasn't much interest in the formations, except for Jim's part..."

4. From: Superintendent Monthly Report Science Excerpts--June 1930

Fauna – Bats - Bat flights very disappointing, guano mining taking place on a small scale by former ranger, Dave Mitchell, under bat roosts. Boles feels sure that this operation and their light has caused the bats to roost elsewhere. Talk still given at entrance.

5. From: Core Knowledge, September 2000

In January 1928 Dave Mitchell and Jim White discovered the Mystery Room which is connected to the Queen’s Chamber.

6. From: Early-Day Guide Recalls History By Doris Gregory El Paso Times

Carlsbad, N.M.-Back in the early 1920s Carlsbad Caverns discoverer and manager Jim White used to accuse his cave guide, Dave Mitchell, of waltzing with women on the trail.
Now the accused guide, who lives here and retired only last summer from the National Park Service, flatly maintains that he was merely helping the women cave visitors along the trail.
The particular day that the waltzing story got started was a number of years before the government took over operation of the little known cave first as National Monument and then as a National Park.

The day had begun as usual with Mitchell picking up the cave visitors at 7 a. m. in the downtown Carlsbad for the drive to the Caverns. It was customary for Jim White to furnish transportation as well as guide service through the cave, 23 miles from Carlsbad. White charged $15 for as many as three persons. Each additional person paid $3.
There were only three visitors that day, but that was not unusual. Halfway through the tour, being conducted by Mitchell, the two women and man “gave out.”

At 11 p.m., Mitchell still had not returned with the party and White started into the cave to look for them. Whited looked down on them as they were coming up Devil’s Hump and as Mitchell encircled a big woman, swinging form one position to the other to give her a push on first one side and the other to keep her up the steep incline, White always claimed that he was waltzing.

On the eve of the unveiling of a plaque in the new Carlsbad Caverns National Park Visitors’ Center, commemorating Cowboy Jim White as the first cavern explorer, Mitchell talked about almost half century of Cavern events.

Mitchell heard about Jim White soon after coming to Carlsbad in 1903. He remembers people saying, “that crazy Jim White has gone off in that cave again exploring,” but according to Mitchell people just thought that Jim was imagining the wonderful things that he told about the cave.

In 1911, Mitchell had his first look inside the cave. It was commonly known as the Bat Cave, because the bat deposits, rich in nitrate, were being shipped to California for citrus orchard fertilizer. Young cowboy Jim White, who had discovered the cave about the turn of the century was in charge of mining operations.

Business took Mitchell to the cave that year since his father, who was in the draying business, started hauling the sacked guano to Carlsbad by team and wagon. It was a four-day round trip , with camp made at the present White’s City site.

Mitchell made the descent in the guano bucket through the shaft entrance into the bat cave to visit the miners. He admits that the bucket ride was “scary” but thinks that it was not as frightening as his first ladder descent at the natural entrance. White had fixed up a ladder that went down part way and then swung back under a ledge at an angle.

On that first cave trip, Mitchell went back into the cave as far as Devil’s Springs where the miners obtained water. This formation and spring are near the present trail entrance. “There just wasn’t much interest in the formation, except for Jim’s part,” Mitchell says.
Soon after Mitchell returned from World War I overseas service, White, who was a man of few words, hired Mitchell as a tourist guide as the cave was beginning to attract few visitors. Guano operations continued and when White wasn’t mining he was exploring the vast cave or guiding tourists. Some days there were no visitors and Mitchell would work on the trails, laying sand-filled sacks for stair steps. White was using what money he could for improvements.

The visitors didn’t come in large numbers until the government took Carlsbad Caverns over and built steep for most cars. White was operating two cars-an Overland and a Gardner. Many times groups at the foot of the Cavern hill and walk up, and then load on the White cars for the rest of the trip to the cave entrance on top of the hill. “One time we had 20 people standing in and hanging onto the Gardner open touring car,” Dave said.

That was quite a trip for when the party got our of the cave it was raining and Walnut Canyon was up, so they could not get down the hill. Jim had some flour and bacon in the bunk house. They made biscuits, thickened gravy and fried bacon, and spent the night in the bunk house. “But the visitors didn’t kick as they all declared that the cave trip was declared that the cave trip was worth any discomfort,” he says. Although the early trips arduous, Mitchell found most people too thrilled to complain.

The descent was made in the guano bucket until the Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce spearheaded raising money for a stairway at the entrance. “We always let the nervous person riding on each side with one leg in and one leg out,” Mitchell said. “Occasionally some woman fainted by the time she got to the bottom.”

Some places in the cave were so bad that occasionally Mitchell would have to blindfold people and carry them across in those days. One such place was called Fat Woman’s Misery because of the narrow passageway, but that was not the worst of it. Next a ladder laid across a deep hole had to be traversed. Mitchell well remembers a certain mother and her 8-year-old daughter, who had to be blindfolded and carried across the ladder. The daughter was back for another cave visit on her 16th birthday. Mitchell did not recognize her until she came up to him and asked if he would carry her across the ladder again. Of course there was a stationary there by then.

After Carlsbad Caverns became a National Monument, a trail was built form the entrance to the lunchroom for $1100 and wood steps replaced the sacks. Col. Thomas Boles, who lives in Carlsbad, was superintendent and White was still working at the cave.

The first lights were operated by a 25 horsepower engine. Mrs. White would put water in the engine and try to keep it running. “We never knew for sure whether we would have electric lights, but since we were carrying lanterns it didn’t bother us much,” the veteran guide says.
Mitchell often went exploring with White and on occasions did some exploring on his own.

White had an uncanny sense of direction and he knew the cave like a book. Some of Mitchell’s intimates credit him with knowing almost as much about Carlsbad Caverns as White did. Mitchell wonders if a tunnel leading off the colorful New Mexico room might connect with one of the other caves in the National Park here. He believes that no one has found another opening to Carlsbad Caverns.

Some of the Lower Cave rooms in the Caverns are as beautiful as any on the regular tour and there are some different types of formations, according to Mitchell. But he is quick to point out the impracticability of including the rooms on a regular tour. Not long ago, he found some new rooms under the Devil’s Room and he has looked down into a lake at the 1300-foot level in Carlsbad Caverns National Park. He hasn’t been able to relocate one tower in the Cavern room that he considered especially pretty, but he is sure that if Jim White were alive today, that he could find it for him.

Article pictures:

PIONEER GUIDE-Here is Dave Mitchell with lantern and first aid box strapped to one side and lunch box on the other . He made his first trip into the Caverns in 1911.

SURPRISED-Mitchell used to surprise tourists when he removed section of a totem pole in the Lower Cave.


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Ash Mitchell said...

Thank you for this wonderful piece of history about my great uncle Dave Mitchell!

Teresa Rogers said...

I just read an article by Hugh Stevens Bell in a December 1927 issue of NATURE magazine, that talks about Dave Mitchell at Carlsbad Caverns.